The Christmas Patrimony, Part I


Advent and the following Christmas season are not only richly endowed in all the various liturgical rites of the Catholic Church, East and West; every country that has ever called itself Christian in any sense has its own way of observing this time, no matter  how atheistic its leadership and social currents may be. The Catholic Church in the United States, tracing as she does her members to every nation under the sun is – in one sense – particularly rich in this regard. During the buildup to Christmas, her Filipino children will be observing the Simbang Gabi, while their Mexican brethren are putting on Los Pastores plays and Las Posadas processions. Christmas Eve will find Italian Americans enjoying the Feast of the Seven Fishes, while Polish, Slovak, and some other Slavic Catholics are sharing oplatki at Vigilias. So it goes through Christmas Day, and on to the Epiphany, with its Three Kings and innumerable national varieties of King Cake. Latin Mass communities are rediscovering the joys of the Rorate Masses, and some few have even uncovered the lost pleasures of Advent Ember Wednesday’s Missa Aurea.

But wonderful as all of this is (and forcibly reminiscent of the real reason for the celebrations as such customs are), it is in truth for the most part confined to ethnic enclaves (or ethnically-aware single families), Eastern-Rite parishes, and the self-same Latin Mass folk. The sad truth is that – save for the addition of Nativity Scenes and attendance at Midnight Mass – the vast majority of English-speaking Catholics in these United States are as  assimilated in the national “holiday” culture as anyone else.

What does that mean? Well, it is to a great degree predicated upon retail stores. Therein Halloween decorations go up starting in August; Yuletide things appear in mid-October, creating for a few weeks in many places a weird Nightmare Before Christmas atmosphere. Although Thanksgiving decorations are now pretty much confined to supermarkets with turkeys to unload, the following day, Black Friday, is touted as a time to get as much gift-shopping done as humanly possible. Thanksgiving weekend parades in the major cities usually feature Santa Claus in his sleigh at the end, signalling the official beginning of the “holiday season.” He will be lying in wait for kiddies and their parents in the major department stores thereafter until the 24th of December. Said tykes will attempt to be good for the remainder of the time, while their elders are eating and drinking themselves into tizzies at successive holiday parties leading up to the big event – and all the while, at least one radio station per area will be blaring nonstop holiday ditties, with the occasional religious Christmas carol thrown in for old times’ sake. The morning after the Christmas Eve demolition derbies at the department stores, an orgy of gift opening takes place. Friends and relatives cram into an appointed person’s home for a huge turkey or ham dinner (although observant non-Christians will betake themselves to Chinese restaurants, those standbys of Jewish Christmas), and at last collapse in front of the TV set to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, the NFL, or a Twilight Zone marathon (the television aspect of the observance being in large part a replay of Thanksgiving). After all of that, it should be no surprise that many people throw out the Christmas tree the day after. Hotels, restaurants, and stores may keep theirs up until New Year’s Day; then the latter will suddenly switch to St. Valentine’s Day hearts, in preparation for the next retail cycle.

Sound pretty grim, doesn’t it? And it is. So what has the Anglican Patrimony to offer English-speaking Catholics and the general society at large? Plenty. Moreover, in this country, the Patrimony already has a distinct advantage in that American culture already considers England THE Christmas culture, thanks to Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, holly, mistletoe, and Yule Logs. Even It’s a Wonderful Life – that quintessentially American “holiday classic” – had to have one English character, albeit an angel, to establish it Christmas bona fides! For many thoughtful public radio and television fans, Lessons and Carols broadcast on MPR from King’s College, Cambridge is an essential part of the season.

So where do we begin? Well, some things are the general property of all catholic cultures, and just require bringing out of church and into the home a bit more – keeping Advent like a little Lent, cutting down on Christmas parties until the day itself or after – and refraining from decorating our houses until the Eve (Christmas trees are always cheaper on December 24, but that is only a side benefit). Of course the Advent Wreath (German Lutheran in origin though it be) and a nativity scene sans Christ Child, shepherds, and Kings are appropriate that time of year; so too is fasting and abstaining on Christmas Eve – Christmas Dinner the next day is all the better for it, but the eves of major feast days were usually kept that way in the Latin Rite until the 20th century. As for the joys of the Rorate Masses and the Missae Aureae, we’ll leave those to the clergy.

But what about more public festive demonstrations of the Patrimony? Well, English Catholicism prior to Henry VIII always had a very theatrical side to it. English Mystery and Miracle plays accompanied the major feasts and their processions – especially Corpus Christi. The original carols had particular circle dance steps attached to them: this is why, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1375), Christmas in Camelot features King Arthur and his court, who “…held rich revels with gay talk and jest; once while they would ride forth to joust and tourney, and again back to the court to make carols…” Between this period and Henry’s break with Rome grew up the Mummers’ plays. Christmas feasting in palaces, abbeys, colleges, and manor houses featured all sorts of exotic dishes such as boar’s heads and peacocks, all served up with appropriate ceremony. From folk of the highest rank down to the lowest, wassailing was practised, while town waits sang and played their hearts out in honour of the newborn King of Glory. The craft and merchant guilds organised many aspects of these celebrations in the various towns. By dissolving the abbeys, Henry put something of a damper on the fun; Cromwell did his level best to finish the job. The Restoration brought some of it back, but the overthrow of the Stuarts and the chill of the Enlightenment strangled much of what was left. By the early 19th century, when Washington Irving wrote of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall (and its sequel), such customs were kept up here and there in odd corners of the country, But a new wind would fan these embers into life.

That wind, of which Irving and his friend Sir Walter Scott were prime expressions, was Romanticism. Under its balmy breezes, many old things revived and new ones bloomed: renewed interest in Knighthood and chivalry; the Pre-Raphaelites; the Arts and Crafts Movement; Young England; the Gothic Revival; Neo-Jacobitism, and both the Roman Catholic Revival and Anglo-Catholicism. Not too surprisingly, the Folk-Lore Society also was born, and set about reviving as much of “Merrie England” as it could, from Morris Dancers to Jack-in-the Green, All of these developments had a huge effect upon the entire life of the nation, and nowhere more than on Christmas celebrations, where they dove-tailed nicely with Dickens’ efforts and the introduction of the Christmas Tree by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Inevitably, these developments would also make themselves felt on this side of the Atlantic, both in the nation at large and most particularly in the Episcopal Church. Once its independence was juridically established, and sufficient years had passed to remove both Anglophobia and resultant suspicion of PECUSA from the national mind, the stage was set for the Church to reposition itself at the centre of the country’s life, as eventually symbolised by the National Cathedral. Christmas at this time was emerging from under Puritan suspicion in New England; it is no coincidence that noted Episcopalian layman Clement Clarke Moore penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823, followed by clergymen John Henry Hopkins, Jr. and Philips Brooks, who wrote We Three Kings and O Little Town of Bethlehem in 1857 and 1868, respectively. In their wake arose a great many revived and repurposed British customs, and a large amount of these had to do with Christmas. Whether a blessing of the hounds or Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans (the American Presbyterians may have started this one, but the Episcopalians ran with it – as witnessed by the huge one performed annually at the National Cathedral), they have led many an enthusiast into the Episcopal Church who otherwise might well have died without any sort of Christianity at all – and certainly a number of these continued along to Catholicism. Let us look now at some of these customs, and see which –if any – might be used by the Ordinariate.

1 thought on “The Christmas Patrimony, Part I

  1. Pingback: The Christmas Patrimony, Part II | Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s